The Archdiocese of Sydney has commended its oldest priest to God, after with the sad death of Monsignor William Mullins on 16 November, aged 99.
A teacher long before he was a priest, his vocation took him from Sydney to Rome in the post-Vatican II era which was rich with new opportunities for non-clerics to serve the church.
His ordination at the age of 51 came after decades as a De La Salle brother, years that he looked back on with fondness and gratitude.
The unassuming servant took on a number of roles without fanfare, whether as Vatican official, seminary professor, archdiocesan archivist or secretary.
He believed that every request or opportunity afforded him was a sign of God’s providence.
Msgr Mullins showed little sign of slowing down as he grew older, and in recent years stayed active celebrating Masses, hearing confessions and working part-time at the chancery, much to the delight of those knew him well.
Known affectionately as “Mons” he was a regular presence for staff who appreciated his gentle presence, humour, and well-prepared homilies at weekday Masses.
He said the scriptures were the love of his life.
Visiting the former Polding Centre chancery in April for a celebration in honour of his birthday, he reflected that “from 14 to 99, that’s not a bad record.”
“But the Lord has directed me over these years,” he said.
“The years after Vatican II were a very privileged time with many possibilities.
“I never once applied for a promotion in all my life. There were always people behind me supporting me and when a door opened and I was offered a role I was always happy to say yes.”
In a 2019 interview for his 95th birthday he wryly attributed his incredible work ethic to being raised to do as he was told.
Msgr Mullins was born the second of six children to Dorothy and Allan in Petersham on 26 March, 1924, and educated at Domremy Convent in Five Dock and De La Salle College in Ashfield.
He joined the congregation as a brother at the tender age of 14.
He was quickly identified as a gifted scholar, later gaining an MA and PhD from the Catholic University of America (Washington DC) and was first appointed to the Congregation for Catholic Education at the Vatican, in 1969 in its schools section, when he was a De La Salle brother.
In 1974 he took leave from his congregation and resigned his Vatican post to pursue the priesthood, requiring only one year of seminary study before the Archbishop of Adelaide, James Gleeson, ordained him for his archdiocese at Our Lady of the Rosary church in Kensington on 1 November 1975.
After serving as assistant priest in two parishes and seminary lecturer and dean of students in Adelaide he was invited back to Rome in 1979 by then-prefect of the congregation Cardinal Garrone, this time for the universities section, and stayed there until his retirement from Vatican service in 1990.
During that time he worked closely with Pope Paul VI and then Pope John Paul II in their work of overseeing the world’s Catholic schools, universities, seminaries and other institutes of learning.
Both later were declared saints, and much later in life Monsignor Mullins joked that he only hoped some of their holiness had “rubbed off” on him.
Returning to Sydney in 1990 at the invitation of Cardinal Edward Clancy, he worked as assistant secretary at the chancery, before being incardinated into the archdiocese on 21 May 1997.
He later supported Cardinal George Pell, and most recently Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, in a variety of pastoral and administrative roles, before moving to lesser duties in December 2000.
He published his memoir From Brotherhood to Priesthood in 2013.
His niece Alison McDonald said he was an “incredible” man who cared deeply about the lives of his dozens of nieces and nephews and their families.
Former dean of St Mary’s Cathedral Fr Paul Hilder was a close friend and former colleague and said the monsignor truly loved the church.
“He always tried to give his best there and always was available to help anybody in any kind of need,” Fr Hilder said.
“The main themes of his life were his constancy, his real love of the church, and his ability to keep people together. He liked to be around people and know what was going on.”
Chancery office services assistant Gabriel Fernandes said Monsignor Mullins became a good friend to him and his family over 18 years.
He described the priest as a gifted spiritual director who placed great importance on the need for stewardship of church resources.
“The chancery staff were his second family,” he said.
“He made time for everybody and he was a wonderful priest to go to for confession—very gentle, very pious, and he placed great trust in me,” Mr Fernandes said.
Monsignor Mullins is survived by his older sister Joan Mullins, sister-in-law Fay Mullins and large extended family.